Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mastering Mastery

Any craft demands mastery.  But what is mastery?

A master chef does not simply make chicken once and then never again.  Mastery neither occurs from only making chicken nor does it occur from constantly learning new recipes.  It's a balance of both.

Mastery is an almost indefinable combination of many things.  It means there's a willingness to still learn and an appreciation for details.  A true master chef, for example, understands everything there is to know about chicken.  What seasoning tastes good on it, how long it takes to cook on a stove, in a grill or baked.  Mastery of a craft means that there is enough of an understanding to draw out lessons or techniques from other experiences and apply them to what is going on right now.

The same applies to learning an instrument.  The goal should never be to learn as many pieces as quickly as possible.  The goal should be mastery.  Who cares if one student knows twelve pieces and the other knows ten?  What skills did the the student learn from those pieces?

In the Suzuki Method reviewing old pieces is a crucial facet.  The purpose is not to train robots or to waste time.  It's to help the student achieve mastery.  A student that has been playing for six months plays a very different Twinkle than a student that has been playing for six years.    

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Practice Partner

I recently got the game Rocksmith for my PlayStation.  For those that are unfamiliar with gaming, Rocksmith is a spin on a game called Guitar Hero that was really popular a couple of years ago.  What you did was use a toy guitar that looked like this:

And then your game screen looked like this:

The colored bump you saw on the screen corresponded with the button you were supposed to press on the guitar controller while flicking the switch on the body of the guitar to mimic strumming.  You can see why this was cool.  Plus it made for a great game at parties as your friends cheered on your impressive button mashing skills.

Eventually the fad wore off but a new type of game has entered the picture: Rocksmith.  Rocksmith has the same format but instead of button mashing you have to plug in a real guitar.  Yes, you read that right.  It uses a game to teach real instrument skills.

So argue all you want about the can of worms this opens (can it replace the private teachers, good technique, etc...) but there is a very important bottom line to this game: it's fun.  It makes practicing FUN.  Like, you WANT to do the tedious work that it takes to get better.

As a music teacher I couldn't help but be impressed.  I want all of my families to be taking notes from this game!  Maybe the style of teaching is different but it really cemented in my brain that a successful practice session is all in how you sell it.  Make tedious work a game and it becomes a game.   

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Review of Rhythm Solitaire

Michiko Yurko has expanded Music Mind Games to new technological heights!  Rhythm Solitaire is exactly what you would expect: solitaire with musical rhythm cards instead of a standard deck.  In order to create stacks the notes and rests must be put in order from fastest to slowest.

The app itself looks very sleek.  Everything is responsive and the menu buttons intuitive.  I was impressed by the design and catchy little main menu tune.  It's obvious that quite a bit of work went into making the game look fun and engaging.  This is not your Windows '98 solitaire game, folks.

The play is quite challenging.  I had to start over the first few times I played after having worked myself into a stalemate.  While there are how-to instructions built in, young music students might need some initial help before they catch on.  The dotted rhythms were a little confusing.  The notes have dotted rhythm options while the rests do not.  I didn't realize this right away and was planning for a dotted quarter rest that never showed up! 

Despite the initial confusion, the play is very forgiving which I liked.  It's designed to reward rather than punish.  There's an easy-to-use "redo" button and no penalties are given for mistakes or amount of time spent figuring things out.  All in all a very positive experience that encourages learning and self-improvement.

I would highly recommend this app for music students of any age.  It's available in the iTunes store for iPhones or iPads.  iTunes store link here.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

15 MORE Strategies for Practicing with Young Musicians

Dislike of practicing is not the same thing as dislike of the instrument. With a few exceptions, most young students are not mature enough to form a reasonable opinion about their instrument. Therefore, it is a waste of effort to quit one instrument and start up something else with the hope that the student will have greater success with the new instrument. Starting instrument after instrument accomplishes nothing. What needs to happen is an examination of the true source of the issues: practicing.

There are two sides to a young child’s musical development. One side involves the actual activities that are done during the practice. For example, thinking of ways to make the child sit or stand with a certain posture for a prolonged period of time. This is the physical practice. The other side to practicing is mental development. Enjoyment of music is something that is cultured over a prolonged period of time. External factors should always be taken into account.

You can find this booklet on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and most other major e-book retailers.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Good and Bad Music?

Music is subjective, which is an easy thing to forget if you were raised with the tastes of one particular culture. Music starts to become categorized as "bad" or "good." If you were raised on Led Zeppelin, 70's rock is "good" and 50 Cent's rap is "bad." And yet if you grew up in a culture that idolized rappers, 50 Cent's stuff suddenly becomes "good."

This subjectivity becomes even more hazy when you're trying to learn an instrument. In order to educate a student it is important that the student listens to good music. Good music is not genre dependent. Good music should be about the quality of a performance. A professional orchestra will play good music. Watching Taylor Swift perform will also be good music.

The reason why this music is "good" is because it's being performed at a very high caliber. Ideally at a level of playing above the student's level. This means the performer has spent many years (longer than the student) perfecting his or her craft and is playing it at maximum ability level. This forms in the student a standard of quality. The student is being exposed to what could be achieved.

Whether or not the student likes the genre or style being played is an entirely different matter. This is musical taste. The level of enjoyment of the sounds being produced and overall experience. Developing musical tastes is another important aspect to learning an instrument. Taste guides the learning process because with taste comes interest. A student may not have any interest in classic music but he may have an interest in something else.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Why Bother Learning by Ear?

I've mentioned many times before on this blog that music is a physical task.  The muscles must be trained to perform.  However, this must be balanced with musicality or artistry.  Learning exact mechanical detail with no emphasis in the art will lead to robot playing.  Focusing only on the art and not training the mechanical detail will hold back ability level.  Playing an instrument is a careful balance of both.

The Suzuki Method has become infamous for its use of ear training in the early stages.  The common misconception is that teachers are training their students to be imitative robots.  Play the piece exactly like the CD.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Any art development does require some imitation.  One of the best exercises a writer can do is examine a passage from their favorite author and try to recreate the style.  The goal is not to become another Steinbeck.  Even if you did manage to copy the style exactly all you would ever be is an imitation of another.  What the exercise does is make you work through how the author achieved a certain effect.

The same goes for music.  How was that piece played on the CD?  As the student matures so too will their observations of the details.  At first all a student will notice are the notes.  Then dynamics and, eventually, phrasing begins to pop out.

Learning by ear forces (for lack of a better word) this type of auditory training to take place.  We live in a very visual society.  If the ear isn't cultured from day one musicality becomes impossible to develop.  Without listening the only thing a student has left are the notes he sees before him on a page.  The notes are merely symbols for sounds.  The quality of sound produced is what makes a musician.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Suzuki Method: A set of books or an approach to teaching?

A little anecdote I've heard about Shinici Suzuki was that for a long time he adamantly refused to put together a set of repertoire to complement his method.  He felt it would make everything too rigid, too unable to adapt.  He eventually caved in to the demand but it's very arguable that he was correct.

It's ironic then that the very thing its creator opposed the most is the thing that ended up stereotyping the method.  When most people think "Suzuki Method" they think about this:

or, if you're vintage like me:

Teachers will teach from these books and claim to be "Suzuki" teachers.  But the books alone are not what make the method.  The Suzuki Method is an approach to teaching, pure and simple.  If there had to be one or the other, a teacher would be more "Suzuki" if he/she used his own set of music but followed the principles of the approach vs. someone who just used the book and never studied the method.

This is very, very important to realize when shopping around for a music teacher.  Do not look at the stack of music books they assign a student.  The books don't make a teacher.  Watch the quality of teaching.  Even though it wouldn't be the most exciting path to take, a good teacher could take a student all the way from beginner to advanced using only scales.  The teacher makes the method books work, not the other way around.